The Virtual Room

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
22 January, 2019
Editorial: 274
Fecha de publicación original: 3 julio, 2001

Doing and undoing is the way to learn

While, on the one hand, public perception regarding the Net is still focussed on the crisis within Internet companies, on the other, there is growing concern about how to apply this technology to areas which have not as yet paid it sufficient attention or discovered how best to incorporate it into the daily running of their organisations. At the recent presentation of his latest book called “Digitalismo”, economics lecturer José Terceiro said, ” Information and information management will become the commodities of the future”. And this is the problem increasingly facing organisations and companies of all types. The Internet population is growing all the time and multiplying its uses but it is not always easy to find a meeting point between user interests and fulfilling their demands. It was precisely this concern which many museums expressed at the 20th General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) held in Barcelona.

The Net exponentially increases personal management of stimuli. Leisure and entertainment, and a host of other cultural activities, provide ideal territory for exercising this management. One simple example suffices to demonstrate the scope of this change. During the last Easter holidays, rented rural houses in Spain reached almost 100% capacity. Nearly 85% of bookings were made through the Internet. Apart from the convenience and the obvious need to find a place for the family to relax, the fact is that internauts not only found the information they were looking for but much more that perhaps they didn’t know about, reinforcing the message and further whetting their appetites: landscape, cultural heritage, gastronomy, history, sporting activities, etc.

The key question, as far as museums are concerned, is precisely how to find this point of encounter with personal management of stimuli. How can museums develop knowledge management systems that go beyond the walls of the museum itself and, at the same time, increase the number of people interested in what is contained within them? In this Knowledge Era, what are the limits of the museum’s capacity to combine information, knowledge, emotions and powerful perceptions of the world around us? These were some of the questions I tried to address during a talk I gave at the above mentioned ICOM congress.

Globalisation, as we defined it in recent editorials (see “The Network Nobody Asked For”, for example), raises a number of interesting questions as regards the opportunities the networks offer in the field of museum management. In the first place, will museums, as places where we consume art, history, science, and culture in all forms, really be limited to the works they publicly exhibit within their physical confines? How will their production be displayed within this globalisation framework? How will we perceive the past, present and future of the museum and its content? Who will decide what and how things are exhibited in museums? Will we be able to create communities of visitors to the museum that go beyond the limits of time and place?

In other words, what will the concept of museum mean or become in a society connected by open architecture networks like the Internet? And, if we are talking about a knowledge society, just how much information will be supplied by the museum itself and how much by the visitors? How will this knowledge be expressed –or captured in order to be expressed– in each case? Finally, but not lastly, as far as the dialectic between regionalisation and globalisation is concerned, what will the role of the museum and its users, the consumers of its production, be in the future?

These questions all point to crucial issues that have arisen over the last few years and which have so far only been graced with “ad hoc” solutions such as that versatile but inadequate stopgap – the “multimedia product”. CD-ROMs or a bit of information technology added to an exhibition (generally video) for instance. This approach, which has generated some excellent, and undeniably useful, products, has at the same time exposed the lack of debate within museums on issues that can no longer be postponed. Issues that would outline an environment permitting, in a joint effort, an encounter between museums and the networked society. In we have tried to do our little bit by developing the concept of what we call the “The Virtual Room” (VR), which we envisage as a new museum space bringing the institution into contact with the complex processes of information and knowledge management, shared with its visitors, both real and virtual.

Although the barrage of questions we posed above don’t all have clear answers yet, at present we know enough to begin sketching out the basic outlines of this VR. Where would it be? Where it belongs: within a network of interconnected computers. What would make up the content of this network, what landscape would it reproduce and who would inhabit it? This is where creative imagination would come into play, always subject to the real possibilities of the museum in question, particularly now that they can see the magnificent opportunities creating a network would afford –networks that would expand their tangible, real limits out towards their unlimited virtual frontiers. In other words, the creation of networks involving both users and museums within a framework of clearly shared objectives.

Tentatively, and sticking just to present day technology, our idea of the Virtual Room would be based, to begin with, on the following four focal points:

The virtual visit: from what is generally on offer in the museum to the personal(ised) museum (including the possibility of interacting with all the exhibits in the museum some time in the near the future).
Exploring the narrative capacity of the exhibit: This is to be found where I visit it and I can explore its context in multiple directions.
Personal management of stimuli. I decide when to access the works (and their context), even before I visit the museum, and how I follow them up afterwards.
The historical memory of the museum: its activities, its past, present and future. Beyond time and space, but within its own space and time.

Consequently, a possible VR structure would go something like this:

My Visit
from the VR one could

travel around the museum,
visit each of its real rooms,
find out more about each of the rooms one visited or was going to visit,
connect to similar rooms or ones that are conceptually connected in other parts of the world,
visit the protagonists of the subject on display and get to know related schools, tendencies, events.

My Cultural Community

Every visitor on entering the museum would encounter a virtual environment where they could:

connect to other visitors,
exchange information,
arrange meetings “in situ”,
look for “real” or “virtual” experts,
experiment with interactive communications technology,
receive information about exhibitions that the museum is planning, their context and relationships with other exhibitions in other parts of the world,
access an online “hot line” to answer visitors questions before they leave the museum buildings (we always leave museums with more questions than we came in with ….. and there is usually little real possibility of finding answers to our questions while we are still “under the spell” of the place). These questions and answers should then form a knowledge base that would orientate Museum policy.

The VR would provide resources that would enable visitors to work while playing with this technology:

write a diary of their visit,
suggest improvements that only visitors perceive,
feed questions about exhibitions visited into a data base. etc.,
make suggestions regarding documentary and educative material,
The possibilities are infinite.

The VR: The Node of the Museum’s Network

After their visit, visitors would remain connected to the museum via:

educational material provided,
mailing lists with announcements (new exhibitions, conferences, new events, etc.).
This network would be connected to other museums and make up “The Art Network”, “The Science Network”, “The Natural History Network”.

So, what are the key factors related to the VR? In the first place, the perception of its importance, how it is prioritised within the institution and the competitive (and cooperative) advantages it has to offer. The VR would mean a change in direction for present museum policies with undeniable cultural connotations. It implies changes within organisations that will not be easy to put into practice nor exempt from a lot of tension. The key is information and knowledge management at a time when these are bound to become essential commodities within the economy. This management is not resolved by simply adding technology or increasing doses of communication. In the first place, a debate involving the main players involved in drawing up museum policies would be essential (this would imply prior research into identifying who these main players are right across the wealth of disciplinary diversity). And then this debate should be allowed to develop in such a way that the advantages of online work would become apparent.

In other words, new museum policy should be drawn up by means of the most suitable technology, methodology and the necessary experience and training for online information and knowledge management. This process should give rise to the conceptual elements for developing projects adapted to all possible circumstances, on the one hand, and the bases for cooperative work which would define its scope, on the other. This is the aim behind’s conceptual development of the VR: the application of online knowledge management via a combination of tools and human resources that could actively contribute to laying the foundations of what should be the best and most powerful communication tools museums could have at their disposal.

Translation: Bridget King